All About Kamala Harris’ Parents, Shyamala Gopalan and Donald J. Harris

Kamala Harris’ parents, Shyamala Gopalan and Donald J. Harris, met as students at UC Berkeley

Kamala Harris/Facebook Kamala Harris poses for a photo with her mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris.
Kamala Harris/Facebook Kamala Harris poses for a photo with her mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris.

Kamala Harris’ parents, Donald J. Harris and Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, came to the United States to pursue their dreams — but never envisioned a future where their daughter would one day become vice president.

Over 60 years ago, Donald and Shyamala arrived in Northern California to study at the University of California, Berkeley. They had grown up on opposite sides of the world — Donald in Jamaica and Shyamala in India — but crossed paths thanks to their shared interest in civil rights.

The pair first met in 1962 while attending a study group for Black students, and their connection was instant, according to The New York Times. Just a year later, they were married. The couple welcomed daughter Kamala in 1964, followed by daughter Maya in 1967.

While Kamala’s parents pursued their careers after graduation — relocating to the Midwest where Donald landed his first teaching job — their marriage faltered, and by 1972, they filed for divorce. Shyamala moved back to Northern California and took on the primary responsibility of raising their children — and became the most influential person in Kamala’s life.

Shyamala died of colon cancer in 2009, but Kamala still speaks of her fondly. After she was elected vice president in 2020, Kamala thanked her mother, crediting Shyamala with her success in her victory speech.

“To the woman most responsible for my presence here today, my mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who is always in our hearts,” she said. “When she came here from India at the age of 19, she maybe didn't quite imagine this moment, but she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible.”

Here’s everything to know about Kamala Harris’ parents, Donald J. Harris and Dr. Shyamala Gopalan Harris.

They met while studying at the University of California, Berkeley

Kamala Harris/Facebook Kamala Harris as a child and her mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris.
Kamala Harris/Facebook Kamala Harris as a child and her mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris.

Donald and Shyamala were born across the globe from each other but met by chance when they were both studying at UC Berkeley.

Shyamala was raised in India, and at the time, there was little opportunity for women who wanted to study science. She applied to UC Berkeley to pursue a degree in biochemistry and her dreams of curing cancer. Despite never having left India, her father agreed to pay for her first year of tuition using some of his retirement savings, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Donald grew up in Jamaica — before the country gained independence from the U.K. — and had attended British-run schools all his life. By the time he decided to pursue a doctorate in economics, he was looking for something different and was drawn to the U.S., which appeared to be a “lively and evolving dynamic of a racially and ethnically complex society,” he recalled to The New York Times.

When Donald and Shyamala arrived on campus around the same time, they joined a Black students’ study group, later known as the Afro-American Association. Although Shyamala was not Black, she grew up as a British colonial subject in India and as a person of color, and members told The New York Times that she was “accepted as part of the group.”

During one of these meetings, Donald and Shyamala crossed paths for the first time. After he gave a speech about growing up under British colonial power in Jamaica, she introduced herself.

“This was all very interesting to me, and, I daresay, a bit charming. At a subsequent meeting, we talked again, and at the one after that. The rest is now history,” he told the outlet.

Donald and Shyamala married in 1963

Kamala Harris/Facebook Kamala Harris' parents Shyamala Gopalan Harris and Donald Harris.
Kamala Harris/Facebook Kamala Harris' parents Shyamala Gopalan Harris and Donald Harris.

After meeting for the first time, Donald quickly became Shyamala’s first-ever boyfriend. While she had initially planned to return to India after finishing school, things changed when the couple tied the knot only a year later.

“I came to study at UC Berkeley. I never came to stay. It’s the old story: I fell in love with a guy, we got married, pretty soon kids came,” Shyamala told SF Weekly in 2003.

They were involved in the Civil Rights Movement

<p>Kamala Harris Instagram </p> Kamala Harris' mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris.

Kamala Harris Instagram

Kamala Harris' mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris.

As their relationship blossomed, the couple became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, Donald was convinced that he needed to attend UC Berkeley because he had read about student activists on campus who were fighting for civil rights. Through the years, Donald and Shyamala took part in marches and protests and shared their stories around the school.

In a speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Kamala said that her parents “fell in love in that most American way — while marching together for justice in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.”

After starting a family, Donald and Shyamala continued their involvement in the movement. They took Kamala to events, with the vice president later sharing that they gave her a “stroller’s-eye view of people getting into what the great John Lewis called ‘good trouble’ ” on the streets of Oakland and Berkeley.

“My parents marched and shouted in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It’s because of them and the folks who also took to the streets to fight for justice that I am where I am," Kamala wrote on Instagram in 2020. "They laid the path for me, as only the second Black woman ever elected to the United States Senate."

Shyamala was a prominent breast cancer researcher

After Shyamala earned a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology from UC Berkeley, she became a distinguished breast cancer researcher.

According to her obituary published in the San Francisco Chronicle, she began her career conducting research at the school’s zoology department and its cancer research lab. She published numerous notable research papers and spent time at many of the top research institutions in the U.S. and around the world.

Shyamala worked at the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin and abroad in France and Italy. She spent 16 years at McGill University’s Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at the Jewish General Hospital in Canada. During the last decade of her work, she returned to UC Berkeley to conduct research within the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

During her career, Shyamala made “substantial contributions to the field of hormones and breast cancer” and received numerous honors. The cancer advocacy organization Breast Cancer Action wrote that her work “transformed the medical establishment’s understanding of the hormone-responsiveness of breast tissue.”

She was also a National Institutes of Health peer reviewer and served on the President’s Special Commission on Breast Cancer.

Donald is a professor emeritus of economics at Stanford University

Kamala Harris/Facebook Kamala Harris' father Donald Harris holding her as an infant.
Kamala Harris/Facebook Kamala Harris' father Donald Harris holding her as an infant.

Following Donald’s graduation from UC Berkeley in 1966, he became an economics professor. He worked at several universities in the Midwest before returning to Northern California to work at Stanford University.

While he was only scheduled to stay at the university for two years as a visiting professor, students campaigned for the department to make more of a commitment to “radical political economics.” Donald, who was described as a “Marxian economist” by The Stanford Daily in 1974, was asked to remain at the school as a full-time professor in 1975.

Donald went on to teach at Stanford for more than two decades, during which he traveled around the world. He served as an associate fellow and a faculty fellow at Cambridge University and as a visiting professor at Yale University, among others. In 1998, Donald retired from his job at Stanford and retained the title of professor emeritus.

Throughout his career, Donald was also involved in policy work in his native Jamaica. He served as an economics policy consultant to the country’s government and an economics adviser to multiple Jamaican prime ministers. In 2021, he was honored with the Order of Merit, Jamaica’s third-highest honor, for “his outstanding contributions to national development,” according to the Jamaica Observer.

In addition to his other honors, Donald has published numerous academic papers and books, including Jamaica's Export Economy: Towards a Strategy of Export-led Growth and “A Growth-Inducement Strategy for Jamaica in the Short and Medium Term.”

They welcomed two daughters

<p>Kamala Harris/Twitter</p> Kamala Harris with mom Shyamala Gopalan Harris and sister Maya Harris.

Kamala Harris/Twitter

Kamala Harris with mom Shyamala Gopalan Harris and sister Maya Harris.

Donald and Shyamala welcomed their first child, Kamala, on Oct. 20, 1964, in Oakland, California.

A few years later, they celebrated the arrival of their daughter, Maya, on Jan. 30, 1967, in Champaign–Urbana, Illinois.

Donald and Shyamala divorced in 1972

When Kamala was nearly 5 years old, she knew her parents’ marriage was ending. Donald was teaching at Northwestern University in Illinois and when he was hired at the University of Wisconsin, Shyamala moved back to Northern California with their two children before the couple divorced in 1972.

In her 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold, Kamala wrote that she knew even as a child that her parents “loved each other very much, but it seemed like they had become like oil and water.”

“Had they been a little older, a little more emotionally mature, maybe the marriage could have survived. But they were so young,” she wrote.

Shyamala went on to raise Kamala and Maya “mostly on her own.” In her vice presidential nomination acceptance speech, Kamala said her mother “worked around the clock to make it work” — packing their lunches in the early morning and helping them with homework when she returned from work.

As she was far from family, members of their community rallied around her, many of whom she had originally met through the Afro-American Association. One former classmate introduced Shyamala to his aunt, Regina Shelton, who became a huge part of Kamala’s life.

Kamala referred to Shelton as her “second mother" in her 2020 Democratic National Convention speech, and when the politician took the oath of office to become California’s attorney general, she laid her hand on Shelton’s Bible, she told PopSugar.

While Kamala and Maya were primarily raised by their mother, they saw their father on weekends and during the summer after he moved back to Northern California to work at Stanford.

They often traveled with their children around the world

<p>Kamala Harris/Twitter</p> Kamala Harris and her sister Maya Harris pose for a photo as children.

Kamala Harris/Twitter

Kamala Harris and her sister Maya Harris pose for a photo as children.

Throughout her childhood, Kamala visited different countries with her family. Before the divorce, Donald brought Kamala and Maya to his native Jamaica to engage in “life there in all its richness and complexity,” a memory he recalled fondly in an essay for Jamaica Global Online.

The economist shared details about one of their trips to Orange Hill, Jamaica, in 1970. “We trudged through the cow dung and rusted iron gates, up-hill and down-hill, along narrow unkempt paths, to the very end of the family property, all in my eagerness to show to the girls the terrain over which I had wandered daily for hours as a boy,” Donald wrote.

Following the divorce, Shyamala ensured the girls had a culturally enriched life, often bringing them home to India and destinations around Europe. In India, Kamala spent time with family and joined her maternal grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, to discuss politics with his friends.

“I remember the stories that they would tell and the passion with which they spoke about the importance of democracy,” she said during a speech at the education nonprofit Pratham USA’s New York Gala in 2018.

Kamala continued, “As I reflect on those moments in my life that have had the most impact on who I am today — I wasn’t conscious of it at the time — but it was those walks on the beach with my grandfather in Besant Nagar that had a profound impact on who I am today.”

Shyamala died in 2009

<p>Maya Harris Instagram</p> Kamala harris with her mom, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, and her sister Maya Harris.

Maya Harris Instagram

Kamala harris with her mom, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, and her sister Maya Harris.

Shyamala died at the age of 70 of colon cancer on Feb. 11, 2009.

As she was not able to fulfill her "dying wish" of returning home to India after receiving her diagnosis the year prior, Kamala scattered her mother’s ashes in the ocean near her mother’s hometown, according to The New York Times.

“Though I miss her every day, I carry her with me wherever I go,” Kamala wrote in her memoir, an excerpt of which was published in The New York Times. “I think of the battles she fought, the values she taught me, her commitment to improve health care for us all."

She added, "There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter.”

Kamala has called her mother one of the greatest inspirations in her life

<p>Kamala Harris Instagram</p> Kamala Harris and her mom Shyamala Gopalan Harris.

Kamala Harris Instagram

Kamala Harris and her mom Shyamala Gopalan Harris.

As Kamala was primarily raised by her mother, she had a profound impact on her life. The vice president has often referenced Shyamala in speeches and on social media, once calling her mother the “greatest source of inspiration in my life.”

In her DNC nomination acceptance speech, Kamala reflected on all the values that her mother instilled in her.

“My mother instilled in my sister, Maya, and me the values that would chart the course of our lives," Kamala said. "She raised us to be proud, strong Black women, and she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage. She taught us to put family first — the family you’re born into and the family you choose."

She continued, “Even as she taught us to keep our family at the center of our world, she also pushed us to see a world beyond ourselves. She taught us to be conscious and compassionate about the struggles of all people. To believe public service is a noble cause and the fight for justice is a shared responsibility. That led me to become a lawyer, a district attorney, attorney general and a United States Senator.”

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